Dave’s Compendium of Army Organizational Oddities

Originally, I intended this to be a sort of quick review wherein I examined some of the Army’s business practices and how we could improve. When I hit 2500 words and realized there were still subjects I had not yet touched upon, it occurred to me that this might be better as a series. This, then, is a preface and, as such, I’m going to spend a little time discussing how I came by my perspective. You could simply glean most of this from my LinkedIn profile if you understand a bit about the Army and know what you’re looking at there — otherwise, this might provide a little insight into a fairly typically atypical Army experience.

I entered active duty from ROTC back in 2004 as an Engineer Officer. I quickly learned that my mechanical engineering studies in college had very little to do with military engineering. After my initial training, I was assigned to an engineer battalion of around 600 people in Germany. I deployed twice to Iraq. I completed some additional training and the found myself in the 82D Airborne Division. I did one more deployment to Iraq, a bit more professional military education, and then returned to Fort Bragg (home of the 82D). This time, the 82D loaned me to XVIII Airborne Corps (yes, those are Roman numerals…we do that sometimes) and here I sit in Kuwait as I type. I’ve been fortunate to see many different sides of the Army as an organization, from a variety of perspectives, but my experience is far from a definitive one.

My time in the Army has been incredibly educational. It has taught me a great deal about American culture, Iraqi/Arabic culture, teams, team building, discipline, family, leadership, management and probably several other things besides. It’s worth remembering, as/if you read my critiques, that these are my observations and insights. I share them here as I’ve shared them with colleagues, in the hopes of improving the organization that so much blood, sweat and treasure is dedicated to. These lessons probably apply just as well to many organisations.

All that said, here are some of the topics I intend to examine:

  1. Lots of meetings = lots of work, lots of “work” = lots of productivity
  2. Why it isn’t wise to (try to) know everything
  3. Pigeons make terrible leaders and worse managers
  4. Better dead than Red (teaming)
  5. A kitchen with many cooks and no chefs
  6. Why you shouldn’t paint by the numbers

There are more, but that’s already fairly ambitious and bit presumptuous. I’ll end with one observation that didn’t make the list above. Organizations don’t keep secrets. This observation is a historical one that remains relevant. King David (Israel) and GEN David Petraeus could both corroborate this. Useful insight as to why leaders “fall” can be found in The Bathsheba Syndrome (Ludwig and Longenecker, 1993 — find it here). The desire to right some personal wrongs, to exempt oneself from those things found onerous or, perhaps, to treat oneself for so much hard work and success can be a powerful one. While the examples mentioned here are fairly egregious, there is a related organizational poison that exists: high ranking individuals consistently flaunting the rules they enforce. It might not kill morale and cohesion in your unit/team/company, but it certainly won’t help you any either. It’s been said that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.” If folks need a nudge to jump ship, this sort of cultural challenge can certainly serve.

  1. Meetings, Busy-ness and Productivity

I have noticed a tendency for meetings to proliferate that is counter productive and, probably, driving the people forced to sit through them slightly insane. The most extreme example I can think of is when an organization I had newly arrived to published a new “battle rhythm.” We call it a battle rhythm because it sounds very tough, manly and warlike — it’s a list of meetings laid out on a calendar. This list was special because it looked as if someone had taken our calendar and laid a beautiful, multi-colored quilt on top of it. They had found a way to span 12+ hours, everyday, with continuous meetings of one sort or another. While that is something of a high water mark, it’s not unusual to see similar, if somewhat less ambitious behavior, in virtually every organization with even a hint of bureaucracy.

Why does this matter? With rare exception, they exhibit a shared truth: Nothing Gets Done in Meetings. There’s a huge opportunity cost associated with taking the talented, bright people your organization has hand picked to achieve great things and parking them in a room for an hour (or more!) where they share perhaps 30 seconds of information (if they have a speaking part) and hear perhaps another 30 seconds of information that is valuable to them. There’s a reason that many successful people follow the mantra of “If I can skip a meeting, I do.” As a general rule, if leaders and decision makers have better things to do than attend a meeting, so does everyone else (if you’re managing them well).

I could go on at length, but Medium provided not one, but two relevant articles on this exact topic in my feed today:

Signal v. Noise: Give 40, Take 0

Signal v. Noise: Status Meetings are The Scourge

The Army has a tendency to exacerbate the penalties associated with status update meetings with the “everyone needs to be at every meeting” rule. If you insist on having a meeting, at least be honest about who needs to be present.

A culture of ample meetings is a too close relative of a culture that values being “busy.” This the related point — work doesn’t equal results. A number of different authors have taken the business world collectively to task over the “cult of busy” mentality where people wear a busy, overwhelming schedule as a badge of honor. Much like a meeting, busy-ness has no inherent value. On it’s own, it doesn’t do anything. Productivity is what matters. Productivity stems from effective time management and effective staff/resource management. Things like hiring the right people, forming the right teams, setting clear goals, providing clear guidance to staff and sharing information can all aid productivity via good management. These things are tied to what the Army terms “deliverables” — that which you are responsible to produce. If you have a culture wherein folks tout the number of meetings they attend, or the long hours they work it is time to take a closer look. Inefficiency isn’t worth celebrating.

2. Knowledge for its own sake

The Army has a tool I like quite a bit: CCIR — the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements. Properly used, this gives staff and subordinates clear guidance of the potential decisions the Commander anticipates and the information the Commander needs to make that decision. It helps folks to figure out “does my Boss need to know?” This tool is also something of a canary — when an organization starts to trend towards micromanagement or fixate on minutiae, you can often see it in the CCIR first. There may be many reasons for a shift in focus, but when the boss cannot distinguish between “need to know” and “nice to know,” everyone feels the effects.

The relates closely to meetings because it is often during a meeting of questionable utility that Leaders begin mining for interesting trivia and generating a requirement for their staff, and those of their subordinates, to seek that information. Actionable information (including CCIR) is what drives decisions — it’s usable and useful. Trivia provides no such return on investment and, just like unnecessary meetings, comes with a significant opportunity cost in its acquisition. I will conclude this section with a short story to illustrate the point:

The XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters was deployed to the greater Middle East. One morning, the Commanding General (CG) got it in his head that he needed to know when every company (Corps->Division->Brigade->Battalion->Company…that’s 4 levels down!) had their last Family Readiness Group meeting. Being half a world away, this was late in the evening at Fort Bragg (home of XVIII ABC). The word went out and the entire organization was mobilized to hunt down this information. Literally hundreds of Men and Women either stopped what they were doing or woke up to provide the CG this information — reports were compiled, many e-mails were sent, phone calls followed up. What did the CG do with this urgently required information? Nothing. He just wanted to know.

3. Pigeons make terrible leaders

Yes, that’s part of a joke. Why do pigeons make terrible leaders? Because they fly in, crap all over everything, and then leave. How do you know you’ve fallen victim to this? If the boss provides a lot of “that’s not what I wanted, do it again” type feedback, it’s a pretty strong indicator. That’s a huge amount of wasted time and effort — something a repeated theme, you’ll note. Some organizations run like a well oiled machine, a sort of hive mind and an extension of the Boss’ own consciousness. Most, I’d venture, don’t quite reach that level and really need their leaders to clearly articulate their intent.

An organization that does even a modest job of promoting the right folks to positions of responsibility ought to empower its Leaders and subordinates so as to take advantage of their knowledge and experience. Ideally, the Leader should have a wealth of both. Good leaders leverage their knowledge with tailored engagement of individuals and groups throughout planning and execution of a major project. This ensures you don’t waste staff effort and avoid those “that’s not what I wanted” moments when it comes time for product delivery. It is easy for leaders caught juggling a full schedule (too many meetings, perhaps?) to miss opportunities to provide guidance and direction to their staff. A well trained staff can do a heck of a lot, and even work semi-autonomously, but they still need an engaged leader.

4. Better Dead than Red Teaming

Red Teaming isn’t a new thing, nor is it unique to the Army. There’s not a huge amount to say here that isn’t illustrated exceptionally well by the official position of the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (the home of the Army’s courses on the subject): Red Teaming is an “insurgency” in the US Army. What makes Red Teaming so challenging for the US Army? I’d posit that it’s because we’re an organization built on saying “yes!” In an organization and a culture that emphasizes homogeneity, team work and the idea that the boss is always right, it can be really, really hard to stand up and say “No, folks, we’re not doing the right thing here.” It can be even harder to get people to listen if you do stand up to present a contrasting point of view. Indeed, much of the Red Team members course is dedicated towards creating persuasive understanding in others for this very reason. The best organizations don’t just really on a cadre of well trained “insurgents” to do their critical thinking and then use Jedi mind tricks to share their ideas though. Cultivating critical thinking remains one of the most important things any large organization can do to facilitate success. In fact, it’s absolutely essential if the organization wants to empower subordinates and leverage individual talent and initiative.

5. Many Cooks, No Chefs

This ties up neatly with having too many meetings. The Army runs on meetings known as “B2C2WG” — that is Boards, Bureaus, Cells, Centers, and Working Groups. The Army also finds itself in a weird blend between Napoleonic organization and new age alignment in what we term “War Fighting Functions” (WfF). That means that every Army staff above a certain level features an inherent challenge. The staff itself is cleanly organized into departments; however, the staff must mix these departments together to make WfF. The blended WfF then combine again to actually conduct the business of staff. With the right combination of folks in a collaborative environment, this can produce excellent results. However, as the name implies, it’s easy to get the wrong mix — that is to say, a mix with no clear leader, or no one to make decisions. This can happen among a group of peers with no statutory authority if they haven’t formed as a team. It can also happen when the individual trusted with the responsibility of the particular B2C2WG is actually a lower rank than some of the other participants. The lack of leadership is tremendously detrimental to actually achieving the stated, hopefully worthy goal, of that group. To often, this type of meeting devolves into a status update and progress can stagnate until a leader emerges (or interjects). A sports analogy might be appropriate here: if you’re going to structure a team towards achieving a goal you need to be mindful of who you choose for the team AND ensure the team has a Captain with real authority. Every kitchen needs a Chef (and maybe a sous Chef too).

6. Don’t Paint by the Numbers

A manifestation of “ideas so good, they need to be mandatory.” Herein empowering individuals, talent management, initiative, and critical thinking of have been expounded upon or implied because of their importance. Creating a vast network of procedures that reduce the role of individuals to that of nodes in a flow chart runs counter to all of the aforementioned. It’s all too common in bureaucracies though. Leaders often carry baggage associated with their success: “It worked for me, everyone should do it that way!” No they should not. It is incredibly easy and tempting to mistake individual techniques applicable in specific circumstances for something that can be generalized to an entire population in every circumstance. At best, you’re left with a “one-size-fits-most” solution. When a situation arises that doesn’t fit the new process or procedure, you simply expand it. Before you know it, the organization is wielding an ever expanding collection of orthodoxy to crush critical thinking and stymie individual excellence. Agile, robust organizations focus on understanding why things work, not what worked. This leads to better development of the organization’s people and lets you see who is struggling (and may not be a good fit). If your organization, like the Army, spends considerable time and money to cultivate its people then trust them; give them the opportunity to excel in the position you hired them for.

I suppose I was never going to manage to both be concise and pass off something billed as a “compendium.” Then again, there are a number of well known, well regarded authors that write very polished pieces on these subjects. However, this is a (pick a cliche for general overview…perhaps “wave top” or “big picture”) look that is fairly comprehensive in its scope. If your organization can get those six things right, you’ll be virtually unstoppable. If your organization gets those six thing wrong…well, things won’t go quite as well.